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NorCal Wine Blog

Spotlight on the Rutherford AVA

Rutherford AVA, established in 1993
Napa County

The Rutherford AVA in Napa Valley is sandwiched between the Oakville AVA to the south and the St. Helena AVA to the north. It stretches from the foothills of the Mayacamas mountains on the west to the foothills of the Vaca range on the east. Both of Napa Valley’s primary north-south roads, Hwy. 29 and Silverado Trail, pass through Rutherford and many excellent wineries are located on each. Don’t overlook the cross roads and spurs though, as there are some great places tucked away.

While Rutherford is home to many distinguished wines, especially those based on Cabernet Sauvignon, even experts sometimes find it hard to distinguish them from those of Oakville. Matt Kramer1 has said, “Collectively, is there a difference between Oakville and Rutherford? Not that I can tell.”

This is because, in part, both AVAs include benchland vineyards and valley floor vineyards. The corresponding differences in soil, temperature and sun exposure change the character of the wines and make it hard to pinpoint very specific characteristics for either AVA as a whole. In fact, the valley floor wines of each may be more similar to each other than to the benchland wines of their own AVA. One can make generalizations about slight temperature differences between the two appellations — Rutherford being slightly warmer — but, in reality, the boundary between them is simply a two-lane road. Those vineyards closest to the road are likely to be very similar. Fortunately, having one’s wine thought to be from Oakville is like being mistaken for George Clooney or Charlize Theron — most people would take it as a compliment.

”Rutherford Dust” is often referred to as the defining characteristic of the Cabernet Sauvignon-based wines from that AVA. However, it is probably more closely associated with the benchland vineyards than those from the valley floor. And, as Stephen Brook2 has pointed out, “so varied are the descriptions of this fruit character that it is hard to know what is meant by most of them.” Indeed, some scholarly books say the term refers to minerality while others say it is the character of the tannins. In any case, the line between the Oakville and Rutherford benches is a thin one and the winemaking styles and oak regimes of individual wineries can also make identification of very specific indicators of the terroir, dusty or otherwise, difficult.

So how does one characterize the wines of the Rutherford AVA? More than 70% of the acreage under vine is dedicated to Cabernet Sauvignon, so it must be the primary grape by which the area is judged. These wines tend to be both substantial and balanced. There is rich fruit but also a lot of tannic structure. These tannins help give the wines long lives but also encourage a person to let the wines mature in bottle for at least a few years rather than drinking them immediately upon release. The flavors tend to be dark: black cassis, black cherry, black olive and earth along with notes of mint, dry herbs and whatever the barrels bring. The typical Rutherford wine is neither thin nor gooey, neither sweet nor dominated by mineral or animal notes. It is nearly full-bodied and ripe-fruited with savory notes and a silky mouthfeel, punctuated by dusty to grainy tannins. The finish can be extremely long.

Among the white wines, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc dominate. Some say that the area is too warm for Chardonnay. However, careful growers and producers are able to turn out very fine wines based on that grape. Forgoing malolactic fermentation is one way some keep the wines refreshing. The Sauvignon Blanc can be extremely good, balancing rich fruit with herbal notes and ample acidity. It is less easy, though, to see distinctions of Rutherford AVA terroir through the white wines than through the Cabernet Sauvignon.

Latitude: 38.45 degrees
Altitude: 100 ft. to 500 ft.
Climate: Warm summer days (peaks in the mid-90’s) with cooling breezes from the San Pablo Bay and morning fog in the lowlands
Annual Rainfall: 38 in.
Soils: well draining and moderately fertile in the west with sedimentary gravelly sand and alluvial, greater fertility and volcanic content in the east
Vineyard Acres: 3,518
Pests & Viticultural Risks: Glassy-Winged Sharpshooters and Pierce’s Disease; Phylloxera; frost or hard rain in the late Spring and early Fall

Primary Grape Varieties: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc

A Selection of Significant Wineries
Alpha Omega
Beaulieu Vineyard
Caymus Vineyards
El Molino
Frog’s Leap Winery
Honig Vineyard & Winery
Lieff Wines
Martin Estate
Peju Province
Provenance Vineyards
Rubicon Estate
Staglin Family Vineyards
William Harrison Winery

Significant Vineyards
Beaulieu Vineyard
Beckstoffer Vineyards George III
Bella Oaks Vineyard
Bosché Vineyard
Rubicon, formerly Inglenook
Sycamore Vineyard

AVA organizations
Rutherford Appellation Wineries
Rutherford Dust Society

Auberge du Soleil
Rutherford Grill

Auberge du Soleil
Rancho Caymus

1 Kramer, Matt (2004). Matt Kramer's New California Wine. Philadelphia: Running Press Book Publishers
2 Brook, Stephen (1999) The Wines of California. London: Faber & Faber

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